World Music Showcase #2

I realized that I forgot to post the next entry for my World Music Showcase, and even though I’m still ANGRY (see previous post), I am going to post it and hope it cheers me up.

So, the next artist you should all know about is:

GIRLS IN HAWAII

According to their cute like Wikipedia entry (which they probably wrote themselves), they are an “indiepop” band. I think that’s pretty accurate. I feel like my Coffeehouse friends might like this group (Lauren Henderson, for some reason, I’m thinking of you when I say this). They were just in Brussels a week ago, but I couldn’t go to the concert because 1) it was sold out, and 2) I was in Brugge. I think they’re currently one of (if not THE) Belgium’s hottest rock groups.

On their MySpace page, you can sample quite a few of their songs, but they’re not my favorites. Here are some videos so you can listen/see:

Bees and Butterflies…I think this is one of their most well-known songs. I love it. There’s no video for this song, but this particular one has the best sound quality.

Found in the Ground….I also love this one.

….and Casper, too. 🙂

Hope you enjoy!

Fuck the Global Village

SOMETIMES, IT’S REALLY ALL TOO MUCH.

SOMETIMES, I don’t understand why EVERYTHING has to be DIFFICULT.

SOMETIMES, I don’t understand why banks won’t let you access your money in another country, even when you go to a bank that has the exact same name as your bank, and has the same logo, and for all intents and purposes, is the SAME DAMN BANK.

SOMETIMES, I don’t understand why you have to pay 30 euros to have “free access” to the Alliance Francaise Documentation Center.

SOMETIMES, I don’t understand why phone companies block their phones so that, regardless of ease, convenience, security, or environmental awareness, you cannot help but buy a new phone in every country you visit.

SOMETIMES, I don’t understand why, when trying to AVOID having to buy a new phone in every country I visit, I use a phone card, it REFUSES TO WORK. And that was after it took me an hour just to FIND a phone booth to begin with.

SOMETIMES, I don’t understand why, at the “Centro Galego de Bruxelas,” there are NO Gallegos. Or Spaniards, for that matter.

SOMETIMES, I don’t understand why you need a work permit to start working, but can’t get a work permit without already having a job.

SOMETIMES, I don’t understand why you can’t get an apartment without proof of employment, when you obviously need a house in order to FIND a job in the FIRST PLACE.

SOMETIMES, I don’t understand why having a job offer AND a house is STILL not enough to guarantee you a work permit. Apparently you also have to speak 400 languages, glow in the dark, and be able to fly. And read minds. And spontaneously set things on fire.

SOMETIMES, I don’t understand why, in this age of technology, globalization, and the fucking “global village,” everything seems to be designed to keep people from being able to go ANYWHERE and do ANYTHING productive, and I feel like I must be the ONLY person EVER to want to/have to/try to move to another country, because they sure as hell don’t make it easy, and they don’t act like they really want you to stay. Anyone who thinks immigrants, in ANY country (ahemUSAahem), have an easy time of it, or get extra benefits the rest of us upstanding citizens don’t get, YOU HAVE OBVIOUSLY NEVER TRIED TO LIVE ANYWHERE ELSE.

And what really kills me is that Brussels is fucking FULL of immigrants. You’d be hard-pressed to even find a true Bruxellois in this town. And I bet half the people living here would rather be somewhere else! You know, the diplomats, the spouses of the diplomats, the university students, the Congolose refugees… and for once, someone truly wants to be here, is willing to learn not only French but Dutch as well, will pretty much do ANYTHING in order to stay and would take pretty much ANY money offered for said job…yet I feel like I get the short end of the stick. EVERY TIME.

SOMETIMES, I JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND.

Things have not been going very well.

World Music Showcase #1

Since coming to Belgium, I’ve discovered no end of fantastic music by Belgian groups themselves. Anyone who I’ve ever dragged to see Salif Keita or a klezmer concert in the park knows I am a big fan of world music, and I would like to eventually do something professionally in that field. So I am now amassing an enormous collection of world music, and I have to say, I’ve done quite well already. Still, there’s a lot more out there. I know a lot of people do not enjoy music from other countries quite as much as I do, and I hope to change that. So, in an effort to 1)make this blog a little more travel-blog-like, and 2)introduce people to stuff I love, I’m going to start showcasing one band a week, starting with Belgian ones (only ones I like, of course!), until I run out (hey, it’s a small country), and then maybe throw some others in there. We’ll see how it goes.

So, for our first artist, I have chosen:

NATACHA ATLAS

She’s pretty well-known, at least in certain circles, and though her music has obviously Middle Eastern influences, she’s actually Belgian-born! Her music combines traditional Middle Eastern and North African instrumentation and rhythms with more contemporary sounds, and it’s all quite danceable. I was already familiar with her songs “Mon Amie La Rose” and “Hope”, but she has a variety of albums I didn’t know about. I’ve never had the opportunity to see her in concert, but I bet it’s a party! You can learn all about her on her MySpace page and hear the entirety of her most recent album MishMaoul at www.mish-maoul.com. I especially like “Feen” and “La Lil Khowf.”

My favorite quote about her from her website reads:

“She embodies the message that there is strength in diversity, that our differences – be they ethnic, racial or religious – are a source of riches to be embraced rather than feared.”

That’s pretty high praise. That kind of music definitely deserves a listen, don’t you think?

Brugge, 2008 A.D.

I was once in Brugge.

A long time ago.

I remembered it being romantic, quiet, medieval – the perfect fairytale town.

So I went back.

I got on the train at 10:30 Saturday morning, thinking I’d get there at just the right time to spend hours wandering around by myself, being transported back 600 years by the historic quarter, meditating on how I wish I lived in medieval times, feeling somber and contemplative all day, alone with my musings.

What really happened was that I got off the train at 11:30, and was enveloped in a veritable flood of people, all planning to meditate and feel somber together, if by “meditate” and “feel somber” you mean “be obnoxiously loud” and “run rampant through the town with borderline disrespect.”

Alain Botton, in his book The Art of Travel, says something to the effect that our anticipations and expectations of a place invariably let us down once we arrive, because we don’t realize that when we travel, we take ourselves with us. We think we will escape from our problems, when really, our problems arrive right behind us, and we inevitably muck up our vacations by taking ourselves along.

The problem with Brugge is that there are people there. Lots and lots of people. Mostly Spaniards, it seems. I think half the population of Barcelona decided to visit Brugge this very Saturday, and there were not at all somber and meditative shouts of “JODER TIA QUE ME MUERO DE FRIO!” throughout the day. The growl of motorcycles and the hiss of bus engines drowned out the crisp sound of hooves on stone that I was so longing to hear.

I wanted to be transported back in time, but 21st-century civilization kept interfering. All day long, I walked along the banks of the gorgeous canals, wanting to be lost in my imagination but instead hearing snippets of conversation in every language imaginable as people looked confusedly at maps, read guidebooks, talked loudly about the next museum on their busy agendas. I sat on a bench overlooking a canalside vista, and a group of young girls set themselves squarely in my field of vision, excusing themselves only half-heartedly as they snapped a quick photo and then moved on.

I entered the begjinhof, where the nuns still live, which, to my enormous relief, had a large sign printed at the entrance requesting silence and reverence. Here, I thought, I’d finally have my peace.

As you can imagine, this was not the case. Even here, people spoke in loud whispers and even smoked, and the din of nearby traffic could still be heard over the walls. A siren, a motorcycle, the rush of the highway. Out of sight, but not out of mind. There was a little church here in the begjinhof, so I went in, seeking solitude. I sat quietly for a few moments, but even here, there was the constant open and shut of the heavy door, the sound of echoing footsteps, the same loud whispering. Could there be tranquility nowhere?

In Brugge, no matter where you go, you will eventually wind up where you began. I retraced the same streets many times, wandering this way and that, watching and wondering. Though there are a few museums in Brugge, I wasn’t particularly interested in any of them. I just wanted to be there, taking it all in, escaping from the world.

Eventually the cold wind (and inescapable crowds) got the better of me, so after a lunch of double-fried Belgian french fries with curry ketchup (my new favorite, ever since Berlin’s currywurst), I stepped into the Gruuthuse to look around. Actually, the museum was really cool, set in an old mansion, and included some interesting details. One of my favorites was the absolutely enormous black cauldron on the old kitchen hearth (which, of course, stretched the entire length of the wall). It amused me to no end to imagine having to make so much soup or stew that a cauldron of that size would be necessary. The other highlight, for me, was the chapel, which had actually been built into the sanctuary of the neighboring Church of Our Lady, so that the family could watch Mass from the comfort of their own home. That’s some serious power, when your house is allowed to invade God’s house. Also, I really enjoyed the ornate decor of the house, which included an uncomfortable amount of unicorns. Apparently they were the height of masculinity back in the day… like powdered wigs and the color pink.

A while later I stepped out of the museum and was on my way to find some hot chocolate to warm me up when I heard roaring noises coming down the street. I was already annoyed that someone was being so loud and obnoxious when I saw the police car and realized it was a parade. I have NO idea what it was celebrating but it was by far the funniest thing I saw all day. It just seemed so anachronistic to have a bright, loud, techno-thumping, gay-dancing parade in the middle of such a (supposedly) serene place. And the floats were hysterical. They were all pulled by tractors, and one of them featured an American saloon complete with drunken cowboys. There were also Germans in lederhosen, Mayan sun worshippers, snow princes and princesses, and some people in feathers. I was completely amused.

After the unexpected delay, I resumed my search for hot chocolate. After asking some locals, I was directed to Zilverpand, a lesser-known plaza along a side street with a little cafe. I ordered the hot chocolate and received a cup of hot milk with a fondant stick to mix into it, plus a marshmallow, a cookie, and a tiny serving of rice pudding with strawberry sauce. Now that’s what I’m talking about!

After my hot chocolate I ventured far from the town center to visit the windmill. Along the road the noise died down and the lace and chocolate shops were replaced with supermarkets, laundromats, and bars obviously catering to a local clientele. The windmill, high above tiny Brugge, has a lovely view of the city, and when I got there, I realized that the sun would soon be setting. I sat at the top of the hll, staring into the sun as the silhouettes of the cathedral towers and town Belfry grew sharper against the dimming light. There were people here, too, but fewer, and they seemed content to be quiet and watch the sunset in awe under the shadow of a long-unused windmill.

I took my time getting back into town and revisited all my favorite places – the Markt, the Burg, the canals, trying to see them in a different light. The air had grown much colder…but the streets were emptier. The tourists scattered like moths into warm, fire-lit restaurants and taverns, cozy hotels and bed-and-breakfasts. The clicking of horses’ hooves was finally audible, and the hum of the neverending traffic finally ceased. Only the soft whirr of bicycle tires broke the silence. The canals were deserted by nightfall, and I walked slowly along, my heels echoing on the cobblestone and reaffirming the fact that I was, finally, alone with the city. Sure, the shops were closed, the museums asleep, the souvenir stands hauled away – but I hadn’t come to see any of that. I had come to see 600 years of time stripped away, revealing a simpler time, a quieter time. I imagined what it might be like to live in a place where the only sounds were that of people walking, horses trotting, water flowing through canals. No boat tours with loud microphoned guides. No tourists out to see everything in a day. No cars, no motorcycles, no airplanes. Just carts, hooves, and footsteps.

I imagined the lace shops 600 years ago, the same detail, the same painstaking attention, the same intricate weavings, on display in a window. I imagined the smell of bread, and chocolate being poured into molds for a special occasion. I imagined a king, and royalty, and church bells that rang every day, heard clearly throughout the town with nothing to overshadow their importance. I imagined the nuns tending to their daffodil garden, not needing signs telling people to be quiet, not step on the grass, not cause a ruckus. And in my imagination, it was all lovely.

But then I realized it was getting late, and cold, and I had better catch the train. Brought back to reality by the ticking hands of my watch, I hurried through darkened alleys, glancing at my map, taking wrong turns until I finally emerged onto a large plaza full of screeching buses and shouting teenagers on their way to discotheques, mobile phones ringing. I made it back to the station just in time to get on a crowded train full of fidgeting people, laden with bags of chocolate and lace and impatient to get back to their televisions, computers, heated homes.

As the train pulled out of the station at 7:31 on the dot, I realized that I can never truly escape from time. As much as I wish it would, mere architecture will not take me back to a different age, to people who lived a different way. The most I can hope for is to escape for just a moment of silence along a deserted canal in a medieval town, where I can imagine things as I would like them to be….before the tourists come back again.

(Luckily, in the midst of all my curmudgeoning and wistfulness, I managed to take some pictures, which you can see here.)

The Power of Beer – I mean, Networking!

Oh, Belgian beer is a devious friend indeed! There’s a reason half of them have names like Duvel, Judas, and Lucifer!

Well. Today I woke to a Brussels blanketed in fog, which to me always makes things that much more mysterious and attractive. It definitely made the gate to the Royal Palace, guarded by two enormous stone lions with a backdrop of dead winter trees, look creepy and haunted cemetery-like.

Anyway, with the fog and gray haze lasting well into the afternoon, my plans for taking pictures of the city were put on hold. Instead, I decided to visit the Musee des Brasseurs, the Brewer’s Museum. Which was perfect, really, because the whole thing is housed in the old brewers’ guildhouse right on the Grand Place, in a stone and wood-carved basement, dark and dimly lit. I had a free entrance card, which is good, because it normally costs 5 euro and consists of one room with a video screen playing a documentary about Belgian beer. The viewing room is surrounded by models of brewing equipment, and there’s a small center room with old-fashioned tools, as the original brewers’ house may have looked 150 years ago.

It did not seem at all worth the 5-euro fee, until I realized that you get a free tasting sample of a Belgian beer. On premise, the type of beer being served changes every few days and is never, ever revealed to guests. I was given a choice of “blond” or “brune,” and I chose the darker. The sample was actually a pretty good size (especially when you remember how sneaky Belgian beer can be!). I was practically drunk after one, but the bartender gave me another, because I am a cute girl and was all by myself. Sometimes it’s really nice to be a woman. A few of the bartender’s friends were hanging around and chatting, and I listened intently, trying to pick up a few French phrases here and there. There was another museum visitor, but he was drinking coffee and doing what looked like paperwork. The bartender and friends began a conversation with this man, who I realized was Flemish, and then they got to talking about language. Eventually they turned to me, and the Flemish man explained that his English was much better than his French, and that he was actually preparing a conference which he would have to give (at the museum) to a gorup of hotel managers, all in English. That’s why he was drinking coffee, he explained, though I suggested that his English might improve if he were to have a beer or two.

His boss soon arrived, and my first thought was that he looked astonishingly like Dr. Evil, minus the cat. He was very friendly and greeted me first with an “Enchantee, Mademoiselle,” That’s another of the things I love about Belgium. I never get tired of being greeted with “Bonjour, Mademoiselle!” and “Bonsoir, Mademoiselle!” Even though it’s the common (and proper) greeting, it seems more like a relic from a lost age of chivalry and gentlemanliness. It’s definitely better than “Hey baby, how’s it hangin’?” Anyway, I soon realized that this boss was the manager of two NH Hotels in Brussels, which are a Spanish chain. Of course, after my two treacherous Belgian beers, I was feeling quite talkative and shameless, so I asked the hotel owner if they needed anyone who spoke Spanish to work at their hotels. He said that actually he’d just had to fire someone, and yes, they were looking for someone new. (Score!) He asked me a couple of questions about my abilities which I answered as positively as possible, and then he handed me his card. (Double score!) He asked me to send him my CV, and then said he would pass it on to the other managers if it seemed like he couldn’t find anything for me. (Oh my goodness, so many scores today!) The boss, as well as his Flemish employee, both seemed incredibly friendly and nice, and the employee said in confidence that if I was offered a job, I should definitely take it because this man was a wonderful boss. (Home run!) I was invited to yet another beer by the bartender, but I decided to quit while I was ahead, a phrase I politely explained to the Flemish employee as I excused myself from the group. I stumbled (really, I had lost track of time and was feeling a little lightheaded) back into the afternoon, where I stopped to buy some Belgian chocolates (my first since I arrived), and then rushed home (rather, ambled home to let the cold air clear my head) to send my CV and hope for the best. Ah, that devil, the Belgian beer!

…Comme si je n’existe pas…

One of the culminating moments in any language learning experience is the moment when something you’ve heard, read, or seen a million times before finally begins to make sense. That happened to me yesterday with the song “Aisha” by Algerian singer Khaled, who I saw in concert back in February of last year. I’ve been listening to that song since then, loving the tune and the voice, but never truly understanding it, unless you count Outlandish’s English remix. Suddenly, on Sunday afternoon, sitting in the park and trying to do my homework, it was like a light went on somewhere and I suddenly heard real words, real sentences, flowing into song, once incomprehensible, now making perfect sense!

This is why I love language learning. I love the moment when it begins to reveal itself to you slowly, as if you’ve unlocked a mystery, found a hidden clue somewhere, set a keystone in place – and wheels begin to turn, lights begin to shine. I love that all the clues you need are already in front of you, and when they finally make sense, you feel as if you’ve just made civilization’s greatest discovery.

Now if only I could speak to people without stuttering, blushing, and making a fool out of myself…